From Out of Soundings,
Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London:
Harper & Brothers Publishers. Chapter 2, p 15-28.
From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 5, p52-58.
H. M. Tomlinson
THIS time I had to go to Switzerland. There was no escape, I was assured. The command to go--it amounted to that--had that note of incredible frivolity known to every man who is advised by an editor to depart; for it was assumed that I should enjoy the experience, but preferred to pretend that I should hate it. The reason for this journey was winter sports. Yet the Olympic games would not draw me across the road, even for the minute when the international quarter-mile race is being run.
To make a tiresome journey in the hope of fun is one of the strange acts not unusual to man, because, the chances are, anything is better than the mechanical daily round from which the savour has been trampled out. Other animals, when the flavour of their pasturage turns flat, resort in large herds, we are told, to what are called salt-licks, obeying an elemental impulse. So does man. He must leave his work, and the mere thought of escape inspirits him; he finds pleasure even in elaborate preparations for his escape. But I cannot remember that I ever anticipated the pleasure which the journey itself would afford; now and then you must pack up, and go, and then you can be but watchful, take one thing after another, and hope for the best. Travel is rarely as disagreeable as one had expected to find it. Something is sure to happen to make you laugh at yourself, if not at the time, then later on.
What an innocent one would be, all the same, to hope for the best, when the quest was the sports of other people at a pleasure resort where Teutons, Russians, and Latins were mixed, in central Europe, the time being mid-winter! We came at length--my companion was a child, on his first excursion across the channel--to our destination, a station six thousand feet up, and my small friend was transfixed by the sight of snow, universal snow, and the fact that we must now enter a sleigh. Snow in England, as far as he knew, first was bright promise, but soon was mush set about with prohibitions, and then it went. But to use a sleigh, as though it were a tram! Here was snow, the true good stuff, deep, dry, and established; that and the stars, so near and large, he told me, was what he had seen in a book. Therefore it was true. That alone was worth the journey to him, a little fact I had not foreseen.
We glided away from the station, or else the station silently retired. There was no noise. We rose above some of the stars; or they may have sunk below us, to shine in lower gulfs of night. What the country was like we could not see, if there were land beyond, and not merely dark and everlasting vacuity; for our sleigh might have been skirting the rim of the frozen moon, whose surface was dimly white; below us other boreal planets were shining. I did not ask myself now whether it was likely that winter sports were enjoyable. I was wondering whether I could keep warm enough to hang on in outer space for the chance of sunrise. The transition is swift, from an over-heated Swiss railway carriage to a glacial exposure amid the constellations.
We came to the porch of a hotel. It was not reassuring. There we found a group of young Englishmen--in those circumstances, the group would be of that sort--and they were cumbered with ski and outlandish gear. They were very happy. They even spoke to us. Their gaiety, in that place, showed their nationality, for they looked like the forlorn hope of an Arctic search party, and that would make any Englishman feel that life had something to be said for it. Here again my sole reward, so far, was the demeanour of my small companion; he showed that he felt he also was seeing life as it should be. Here he was, at last near the real thing. He heard, as I did, those young men praising God because of plentiful snow and a low temperature. Somebody, too, had broken his leg that morning.
We arrived at that eyrie after dark, and the suspicion was natural next morning that we were far above the earth. I opened the bedroom window-shutters in curiosity, to learn by daylight how far in space we were from home. We might want to get back, some day.
We were nearer than I had thought. Two firs, their dark arms holding out as much snow as they could carry, stood just outside, but nothing else was outside; beyond them was empty air. Though they were something. There was not a sound in the void, till some unseen children laughed in it; and there is no doubt that a more reassuring base for one's doubtful hold on things than the laughter of children would be hard to get.
The light improved. Across the emptiness, which was a valley, to which I could see no bottom, a dark forest formed, and it rose steeply into a white blur that merged into a pale sky. At times I could see a spectral dance up there in the sky, a commotion in the vague clouds, and presently through a parting of them appeared a superior and baseless mountain peak, remote and bright in a morning sun which could not see us. That peak was translucent; it could not be gneiss and schist; it was nothing material; it was only the apparition of what is beyond in a world not ours. As I looked at that peak, and saw others appear, with glaciers, in a lofty dawn, I came to the prompt conclusion that there would be no ski for me; not any of that tomfoolery. I was there on business.
One glance round the breakfast room told me that nobody else was there on business, not on business relevant to those harsh economic laws by which we either survive or do not. Perhaps the morning light affected us. London had been drab for months, and I myself felt the gay impropriety of the novel radiance. The very people who at home are so careful to make the correct appearance, at all times, that they can be offensive to inferiors and the thoughtless, here dressed in a way which left one free to do as one pleased. One young lady had a hat which Phiz designed for Bill Sikes, a reefer jacket, black pantaloons and puttees, and a pair of boots borrowed from a navvy, by the look of them. Somewhat later that morning I saw her flying down a descent of snow, and then it was another matter. She would have overtaken Diana, going thus.
And what, asked my small companion largely, are we going to do?
Nothing! Well, just walk about, and see things.
Nothing? It must have been the new kind of light, and those skaters on the rink below, meteors with intersecting orbits of scarlet, emerald, and gold, in a white expanse. The rink? The snow run? I ruled out ski-joring, after an episode I had witnessed in the village street just before breakfast. Not that. For a matronly person, severe and large, and wearing ski, the conventional cap of a burglar, and in other raiment not out of accord with her cap, provided herself, before my eyes, with a handlebar. To this was attached a trace, and the trace was attached to a horse. The horse had bells on its scarlet collar. A man mounted the horse, and off all went, very gracefully, to the music of the bells. It ought to have been applauded.
But the street of that Alpine hamlet, in its abrupt turns, was only as if it had been thrown anyhow on the slope, and when the horse attached to the lady reached the first corner it met a German gentleman. In addition to his less noteworthy apparel he wore a vivid green hat, and a long beard; the horse was unprepared for it. It reared in amazement. Then it turned on its track as if to question the lady following as to the motive of this German. Its sudden movement confused the trace with the lady's ski, and the horse, still more surprised, backed swiftly from a flash of reversed black legs with long upper slats.
No, not ski-joring, when a horse could never tell what it would meet at the next corner. We must do something else. What should we do? I had learned already that this valley was a possible cure for dummification of the mind. It seemed to me that all the languages of Europe were spoken at our hotel, except Icelandic, maybe. It had a porter who could answer any question in one's own pure dialect, whether of Cork or Catania, and he explained to me that this was because he used to clean boots in Bloomsbury. I could never fully believe that he was only a porter; in his uniform, he could have passed for a surprisingly well-read general of a romantic continental state. It struck me that he must be of London birth until he turned to instruct a Russian in the local postal arrangements, and then advised some little children from Palermo where to find the luge.
The luge! Nor did I want the luge. And skating was insufficient; it was worse than insufficient, because I dared not venture on an intersection of those coloured meteors in their orbits. That day the two of us merely observed the sunlight on icicles and snow-laden trees. It was in the evening that the Tempter appeared; he was dressed as an English youth, and spoke in the Oxford way. "Do you ski?" he asked me.
"No," I told him; "but if he wanted a hand at cards . . ."
He did not. Why was I there? He spoke of high altitudes, from which could be seen all the kingdoms of earth, down to which one flew, secure in the air, turning from peril with the indifference of a swallow. The very next morning was in gold, with snow in the innocence of its original precipitation, bright as an early birthday. I saw it, and remembered the talk of that young man of the night before, when idling past a shop, outside which stood ski and mountaineering apparatus. I paused too long; I went in.
A man inside led me to a stack of ski, and told me to reach to the top of a pair. I could just place my hand on the upended prow of one of these narrow boards. It was the right length. The right length to me seemed an enormity, but I was led outside, and the man strapped the planks to my feet, handed two sticks to me, and departed.
My elation had gone. I was strapped to the road. I was sure that I should be like the marble drinking fountain close by, a permanent feature of that village street; the next day visitors would come up to inspect me, snow on my contours, and would look for an inscription to see what I commemorated.
Then one ski began to move. We will call him Castor. Pollux remained firm for a moment, then saw that Castor was leaving him, and followed in haste. My feet no longer were in my charge. They were controlled by twin devils, who were friendly and sportive together, for they had come to a secret and sinister understanding about me. I could never guess what they had agreed upon, though certain it was no good to me. Sometimes I divined instantly what the end of a bit of devilment would be, but while I was frustrating that manoeuvre they deviated.
And another thing. It was the amiability of those twins which were most to be feared. Their really diabolical plots were hatched when, my mind growing easier about it all, I felt I had got them tamely under my feet. It was with that sudden sweet surrender that they took me nicely down the road. I had got them going. This was easy. They were running in docility side by side, well under control, when there was an explosion of sleigh bells behind me, and a brawling, in Magyar, it seemed to me. I turned to inquire, and saw over my head the plumed manes and foaming mouths of two black horses; and at that instant my ski took root in the earth. They were trees again. The sleigh brushed me as it shot past, and the temperature of that Alpine winter became tropical in a flush.
As soon as the sleigh had gone my ski came off the ground, and I was free again. I cajoled the pair with wheedling tact, because now we were some distance from the hotel, and the way home was uphill. Would they go uphill? I did not want to consider the problem of return, for it was easier to go downhill, and that was problem enough. Somehow, Castor and Pollux were persuaded to allow me to reach the verge of a snow field, away from the road, and not so open to observers.
The snow was a long slope, and to the eye was of smooth and gentle design. The view was superb. On one side were high peaks with glaciers glistening in the sun, and elsewhere rose the austere summits of Roseg and Bernina, white above their forests. The snow before me undulated down to a footpath, and beyond the footpath--but I could not see beyond the footpath. From my vantage, open space was on the far side of it.
Fear seized me. But it was impossible to stand there, pretending to admire the view. As would a man of his word, I commanded the Twins to go. They went. I left this earth. Into which of the nebulæ would I plunge? But it was not for me to choose which. The wind poured past with a voice like the murmur of an organ. The snow fled under us with the spin of the globe, and a forest was coming up to meet us. The prows of my winged shoes smoked like comets. If they were heading for Orion I could do nothing to help them. My thoughts flew in and out--I left them behind--there rushed up the last white rim of my own planet, which now I must leave. I reached down with a stick to give a last farewell touch to earth; and then, as a novel would tell us, all went dark.
Somewhat later I found my mouth was full of snow; my head came out of a hole it had made in something. The horrified eyes of my small companion, who had followed me on a toboggan, met mine, and he said, "Are you all right?"
I was. I would try again. But Castor and Pollux were locked in an embrace, out of sight, in a snowdrift. They moved in an ecstacy of mirth, and for a time paid no attention to me. But it would not be right to expect the shoes of Hermes to act as though they were goloshes.